068. RWC2019 Quarter-Final 1: England 40 Australia 16

And so the Cheika Era comes to an end, not with a bang or a whimper, but with chaos and stupidity.

Kurtley Beale repaid his coach for continuing to select him well past his use by date with another display of missed tackles and kick and pray.

The forwards repaid their coach’s arrogance off the field with arrogance on the field, and got their arses handed to them.

Cheika’s legacy is a lesson in how not to mount a campaign.  No selection consistency, chopping and swapping, bringing back players like Justin Bieber James O’Connor in the hope they might be a silver bullet, and never ever settling on a strategy.  Never ever coaching players to get better.

There are good players in Australia who deserved so much more: David Pocock in particular was a great talent in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Was.

Eddie Jones is the exact opposite.  Whether you like his brand of rugby or not, at least he knows what he’s trying to do.  Big brutal forwards, backs who return the ball to their forwards, and just occasionally run like the wind.  Efficient.  Effective.

England proceed.

Australa go home to a long hot summer of internecine blood-letting that will make the Godfather movies look like a Jane Austen period drama.

 

064. And Then There Were Eight

And so we enter the knockout phase (having knocked out 12 teams to get there).

QF1: England vs Australia, Oita

England have this, if only because Cheika has done a Cheika and selected 19-year old Jordan Petaia at centre.

No worries about choosing a 19-year old, who is clearly a big future talent. But up to this point he’s been a winger.

It’s just another data point in Cheika’s long history of imagining shit up.

Eddie Jones is not rolling any dice.  He’s got a very solid team who will bore you to defeat.

Heart says England (but without much passion). Head says England.

 

QF2: New Zealand vs Ireland, Tokyo

Ireland’s loss to Japan in the pools means they get the joy of meeting the All Blacks.  And their performance through most of the pools says this is a team that peaked too early: 2017 and 2018 were great, 2019 not so much.

On paper, this is the ABs match to lose.  They have the experience, skill and, most importantly, pace to make the Irish weep.  The only question, really, is whether they turn up with the right mental attitude.

Heart says All Blacks, obviously.  Head says All Blacks.  But I’ll be anxious as hell until they actually do the business.

 

QF3: Wales vs France, Oita

Wales are another team that have not greatly impressed through the pools.  A couple of great players in Alun Wynn Jones and Dan Biggar, but for long periods they have fumbled and bumbled.  Let’s assume that Warren Gatland puts a rocket up them before kick off.

France is still France.  They snuck a win against Argentina, numerous reports of revolts against the coach, and way too many questions about their connectivity.

But they’re France, and this might be the one match where they turn up and play like angels.

Heart says Wales.  Head says Wales, but this is the one quarter-final where it really could go either way and you wouldn’t be surprised.

 

QF4: Japan vs South Africa, Tokyo

After that nervous first start against Russia, Japan have been absolutely fabulous through the pools, collecting Ireland and Scotland scalps along the way.

And now they’re going to go bump.  Because South Africa is not going to play an expansive, helter skelter game.  They’re going to play hide the ball in the jumper, and use their yuge forwards to steamroll the Japanese pack.  It won’t be pretty, but it will be very effective.

Japan are going to have to find a way to win with 30 percent possession and 20 percent territory.  Good luck with that.

Heart says JAPAN JAPAN JAPANHead says (whisper it) South Africa, in a crushing slow-motion mauling mashing sort of way.

 

Ned will be in attendance for QF2 and QF3 (which requires some nifty footwork to make the connections). Let’s get ready to rumble.

058. Matches 31, 32 and 33

RWC2019 Match 31:  Scotland 61 Russia 0

Having recognised the threat they were under of not getting to the quarter-finals, Scotland turned up to play. Even as the ‘second string’ team, they ran and passed and caught like they meant it.

Young fly-half Adam Hastings had a game to remember, scoring two tries and eight conversions for a personal tally of 26 points.

For Russia, a bit of a bump down to earth after some decent performances against Samoa and Ireland.

 

RWC2019 Match 32: Wales 29 Fiji 17

For much of this game, up until the 68th minute when Wales scored a converted try to take it out to the final score, you imagined this would be Fiji’s night.

Partly that’s a statement of how well Fiji played, and partly how discombobulated Wales let themselves be.  Fumbles, bumbles, aimless kicking, dropping off tackles. Even the wonderful Alun Wynn Jones made a couple of errors.

Two uncoverted tries to Fiji in the opening eight minutes gave the dozen Fijian supporters just below me in the Oita Stadium stands a lot to cheer about, which they duly did.  Amazing how just a dozen voices can fill a stadium. And the Japanese crowd loves the underdog.

The large contingent of Welsh supporters were trying to find their voices, and when they did it largely consisted of advice regarding ingenious but improbable acts of physical dexterity for the referee, the players and (bizarrely) New Zealanders. (I’m not kidding about the last one: I was tempted to ask the boyo why, but thought better of it given the amount of sponsor’s product involved.)

A couple of real worries for Welsh coach Warren Gatland will be the lack of discipline (two yellow cards in the 7th and 52nd minutes, and conceding a penalty try), and the injury to Dan Biggar.  The latter was the result of a clash with one of his own players as they both went for a high ball (which in itself is a type of ill-discipline), and Bigger stayed down for quite a while. Long enough for them to bring out the stretcher cart, before he stood up and jogged off waving to the crowd to persuade them all was well.

You cannot underestimate the importance of Biggar to the hopes of this Welsh team.  His skills and strength put him several notches above his team mates, and he drives his team around the park with ferocity.  He screams at his mates, putting them where he wants them, directing the lines they should run.

The latest reporting from the Welsh camp is optimistic – ‘Warren Gatland is hopeful of a clean bill of health’ – but if you parse the comments closely you’ll get an idea that all is not so well:

“Dan has gone through the protocols. He had a scan as well. He’s spoken to consultants from World Rugby, we’ve had an independent consultant talk to him as well. They are pleased with the progress he is making. So he’ll be fine.”

Uh huh.
Scan, spoken to by World Rugby medicos, got their own consultant, ‘progress’. Right.

But the real comments about the game should be about the Fijians: big, fast, strong, skilful, joyful, and tonight for 68 minutes playing with real smarts about when to run and when to hold, deft field kicks, devastating tackling. Yes they ran out of gas, but it was a great ride while it lasted.

 

RWC2019 Match 33:  Australia 27 Georgia 8

No rejoicing for GirtBySea tonight, with a shockingly bad performance by the Wallabies. Just awful:

  • their first try came in the 22nd minute, the dull pick and go and smash at the line variety
  • another yellow card for poor tackling technique
  • half-time score 10-3
  • second try comes at 59 minutes, a piece of solo Marika Voroibete genius
  • a very lovely running try by Georgia at 69 minutes closes the score to 17-8 (conversion missed)
  • two late tries (74th and 78th minutes) take the score out, and get the bonus match point.

Ups to the Georgians, who are enjoying the World Cup opportunity to keep improving the ambition of their game.

Downs to Michael Cheika who has the unenviable ability to make his team worse rather than better.

 

050. Matches 24, 25 and 26

RWC2019 Match 24: Australia 45 Uruguay 10

Cheika’s Chumps carried on with their high-tackling ways, coughing up two more yellow cards in the 13th and 28th minutes.

The earlier disclosure that Cheika has never briefed his players about the World Rugby tackling protocols is straight-up malpractice, and it’s coming back to bite them.

Yes they got a bonus point win against the 18th ranked team in the world, and they debuted the brightly-talented 19-year old Jordan Petaia, but there are just too many ifs, buts and maybes about their pool performances to think they’re going to go deep.  They failed to score in the fourth-quarter.  Chronically bad tackling technique is just the headline symptom of a team that’s putting in plenty of effort but in a slightly wrong direction.

Uruguay, on the other hand, can take much heart from another willing performance. They scored the last try in the match, keeping alive a record of scoring at least one try in every match.  Not too shabby for a bunch of semi-professionals.

 

RWC2019 Match 25: England 39 Argentina 10

Another match that promised much given what was at stake, but was put in its box by a red card.

This time it was serial bad-boy Lavanini who went kaput, and ended any chance of Argentina getting out of the pools. His high shot on Owen Farrell in the 17th minute was stupid, blatant and par for the course. Numpty.

Even so, it took a while for England to settle into a rhythm, but when they did, they showed why they’re going to be tough in the knockout stage. They play a low-risk pattern based on possession and collision by big monsters upfront, and only spreading the ball when the proverbial my dead granny could score. Brutal but/and effective.

I caught up afterwards with a gaucho who had flown Buenos Aries – New York – Tokyo, with tickets for all the Argentinian matches, sad face missing his wife and kids, and all for no joy at all. Not a happy cowboy, and putting the blame on Super Rugby for exhausting the same group of players week in week out.

I quietly suggested that they should think about getting a coach who used to play in the backs. Mario Ledesma is a good bloke and all, an excellent scrum coach, but if you were raised in the front row you’re unlikely to love or understand the running and passing game so much.  (Exhibit B: Warren Gatland.)  The Argies have a history of fluent running backs, which they they should return to.

I don’t think he heard me over the sound of his tears splashing into his beer.

 

RWC2019 Match 26: Japan 38 Samoa 19

The ferocious excitement lit by Japan’s win against Ireland was tangible in the City of Toyota Stadium.  Japanese fans are now daring to believe that their team can, should, will win every match.

And why shouldn’t they when the team is coming along with such joie de vivre.  Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown have done an outstanding job instilling real rugby intelligence across the field.  They know what they want to do, and they go out to do it.

This was exemplified in the final plays of the match, when the Brave Blossoms were comfortably ahead having scored three tries and a swathe of penalties. But they wanted the bonus point for the fourth try, knowing it could mean the difference between getting a quarter-final spot or watching from the sidelines.

So they went for it, and got it in the 4th minute of overtime. The crowd, as they say, went wild.

Samoa again showed the challenge of having a squad of guys mostly in their 30s.  The legs just don’t last like they used to, even if the heart and head are willing.

There are so many Pasefika playing for other teams at the tournament.  It would be unfair to call the official guys the leftovers, but the fact is that professional rugby spots the best Pasefika talent at an early age and takes them away and doesn’t release them for international duty.  New Zealand is not the worst offender by any means*, but we have a responsibility to use our heft at the international level to find a way that provides the benefits of professionalism without undermining national teams.

Robert van Royen’s piece on foreign-born players in Tier One teams is worth a read.

For a start, the All Blacks have four players who were born elsewhere: Sevu Reece (Fiji), Nepo Laulala (Samoa), Ofa Tu’ungafasi (Tonga), and Shannon Frizell (Tonga).  On the other hand, there are 13 men born in New Zealand who are appearing for other teams at this World Cup.

Scotland wins the booby prize for most foreign-born players (14 out of a squad of 31), and Australia isn’t far behind (12). Argentina gets the medal for having exactly zero.

044. Matches 16, 17 and 18

RWC2019 Match 16: Georgia 33 Uruguay 7

A four day turn around for Uruguay after their heroics against Fiji.  They were never going to be in the hunt.

Georgia had 59 percent possession and 69 percent territory, which maybe says the Georgians should have had more than five tries. But hey, that’s a bonus point and put them third in Pool D. Mission accomplished.

 

RWC2019 Match 17: Wales 29 Australia 25

Yes the refereeing was terrible.

But so what, Mr Cheika? It has ever been thus, and always will be.  Ned’s rule from 2007 is “Never be in a position where a referee’s mistake can cost you the match.”

For long periods Australia played like they were auditioning to be a Northern Hemisphere team. Pick and go, pick and go, looking for contact rather than gaps, bash and budge. That’s your error, Mr Cheika, not the refs’.

The Welsh played like a Warren Gatland team, so no surprises there. Big, strong, brave – but very limited gap creation.

Remember that the prize for coming second in this Pool is probably a quarter-final against England. Which maybe might have been a reason to be more ambitious.

 

RWC2019 Match 18: Scotland 34 Samoa 0

Samoa struggled mightily in the sweltering heat and humidity, but they came up against a Scotland side that had something to prove after being absent without leave against Ireland. (And then Japan beating Ireland throwing Pool A into a free-for-all.)

Four tries (including two penalty tries) to Scotland gets them a bonus point, which will be critical to the final standings. They showed character, if not a whole lot of menace.

The last Pool match – Japan vs. Scotland – is shaping up to be massive, with everything on the line for those two teams, and the quarter-final matchups a mystery until the 80th minute.

Fabulous.